The death of Joan Rivers was both like and unlike Robin Williams’ death. Like Williams, she was a talent who was full of life and never seemed to stop working up until the end. Unlike Williams, who was also experiencing health issues, she didn’t die by her own hand. Despite that, though, the loss of Joan Rivers is also one that has had an impact on my pop cultural likes.
As with Robin Williams, my first exposure to Ms. Rivers came through a Muppet-related project…To be specific, “The Muppets Take Manhattan”. The last of the Muppet movies made while Jim Henson was alive, it was all about Kermit and the gang taking on New York City and other parts of the country trying to get their college musical on the Great White Way. Although most of the Muppets split for different parts of the country, Miss Piggy stays behind, and one of her jobs, while keeping her eyes on Kermit, is at a department store, where Joan Rivers plays her co-worker, Eileen.
I didn’t really know the cameos until I was older, but I knew that the scene was funny. Piggy and Eileen are talking about improving Piggy’s looks, so Eileen suggests make-up, and they eventually go crazy with the various make-ups in the store, leading to them both getting fired and continuing to laugh hysterically.
The next movie I saw her in was “Spaceballs”. Well, technically, it wasn’t her…It was her voice accompanying Lorne Yarnell’s (now also deceased) movements as Dot Matrix, the C3PO parody that was Princess Vespa’s (Daphne Zuniga) sidekick. I thought that Rivers delivered her lines wonderfully.
Even the smallest of lines from her could deliver big laughs. When the crew approaches Yogurt (Mel Brooks), Barf (John Candy) says “It looks like the Temple Of Doom”. In response, Dot says, “Well, it sure isn’t Temple Beth Israel”. Just little lines like that make me wonder if Rivers had any say in her lines for the script. Rivers and Brooks…Time flows like both.
(Apologies for not being able to find that scene on YouTube…I miss the days before MovieClips made itself known. It was easier to find scenes from your favorite movies. Of course, you ran the risk of copyright violation, but I digress)…
As an avid viewer of “Saturday Night Live” episodes from the 80s when they aired on Comedy Central in the 90s, I saw an episode that Joan hosted in 1983. It was a funny episode, highlighted by a sketch where Rivers is in an old age home for retired entertainers, and she hangs out with Eddie Murphy, speaking in the voice he would use for the character of Saul in “Coming To America”. They reminisced about old times, and near the end of the sketch, Murphy says “Joan Rivers is the best”. It was oddly heartwarming.
At the end of that episode, she handed out copies of her comedy album “What Becomes A Semi-Legend Most?” to the cast and the episode’s musical guest Musical Youth (singers of “Pass The Dutchie”). I was actually fortunate enough to come across a copy of that album on cassette, and then unfortunate enough to lose it. When I visited YouTube one time to look it up, though, I saw that it was there. I immediately saved copies for myself.
I laughed just as much as I did years ago. Within the span of a little over half-an-hour, she took on all sorts of topics, and left no stone unturned. I wish she could have released more albums. Her comedy was always rapid-fire. A lot of people said she was rude and offensive, but there’s a difference between comedians and average people. When Rivers would engage in humor about ethnicity, sex, religion or any of the other things that make us different, it was done so in a spirit of how we’re all in this life together, so we should make the best of it. When your average dudebro or youngblood makes those same comments, it’s difficult to tell whether they’re being naive or just rude. With Rivers, you could tell the difference.
Earlier this year, I purchased a copy of “The Swimmer”, a 1967 drama starring Burt Lancaster. In the movie, Lancaster plays a man who suffers delusions of how his life has gone and where it’s going, and learns the painful lesson that you can’t go home again. He learns this lesson while swimming in pools which he notice form a path to his old home. At one of these pools, there’s a party going on, and Joan Rivers, playing a character named Joan, is one of the guests.
Lancaster tries to put the moves on her, and while at first she’s flattered, she’s eventually warned away from him. It was a small role, but I think Rivers could have done more dramatic work. As it is, she was one of the best examples of a comedian you could ever find.
Finally, I can recall where I was when I heard that Rivers’ health had taken a bad turn. It was on the way home from visiting 2 relatives and their new son. My brother was listening to NPR, as was I, and we were listening to an interview Rivers had done to promote one of her recent books. It was later revealed once the interview was over that Rivers was in the hospital.
I was hoping that she would be able to survive this medical trauma, since she had certainly suffered enough in her life, from the serious problem of her husband Edgar Rosenberg committing suicide to the equally hurtful, though non-fatal end of her friendship with Johnny Carson. Unfortunately, on September 4th, Joan Rivers passed away at the age of 81.
While her departure is sad, her work will live on. She was a hilarious and very influential woman, and I hope that she’s still looking down on us and criticizing us in the next world. That was her routine, but it wasn’t routine. It was damn funny, and so was she.
R.I.P Joan Rivers.
If you want to hear “What Becomes A Semi-Legend Most”, here’s the album in 3 parts on YouTube. The user who uploaded it recorded it in a room with his dog. Look past it, and you’ll hear one of the 80s’ most underrated comedy albums. Grab it while you can: